July 6, 2013 @ 2:15 AM

Posthumous reputations...

There's not an artist born, I imagine, who wouldn't prefer to savour some recognition of their talents in this world, than have to live in the uncertain hope of enjoying only the dead fruits of a posthumous reputation.

Dr Johnson

You don't have to sell out completely to the lowest commercial denominator not to recognise some truth in Dr Johnson's 1776 dictum that "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money": money of course being the arbiter of popular success.

I bought a copy of the aphorism on a postcard once from the great lexicographer's London house in Gough Square, and kept it pinned above my desk for years until, like all human vanity, it disappeared.


Dr Johnson by Reynolds


And yet how often do we learn of a great writer, one of the Immortals of Literature, dying in relative obscurity – only to find fame in their decease ... and with somebody else enjoying their royalty cheques.

Think of Cervantes getting the first copy of Don Quixote on his deathbed. Of Anne and Emily Bronte known mainly by their pseudonyms, Acton and Ellis Bell, when they died tragically young – though Charlotte became well known in life under her own name as the author of Jane Eyre and other novels.

Jane Austen, whose books were admired by the Prince of Wales, nevertheless was buried in Winchester Cathedral under a stone lavishly inscribed by her devoted family that made not one mention of her writing. As if they were ashamed if it!

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka, one of the most influential authors of modern literature, lived and died little known as a writer, pleading with his friend Max Brod to destroy his manuscripts (though Brod, fortunately for posterity, refused to do so.)


Franz Kafka d.1924


In such cases, the elusiveness of temporal fame has nothing to do with the talent of the author, nor the quality of their work.

Partly, of course, it's the time they lived in: the onset of disease that couldn't be cured, leading to a death too soon; literary fashion; gender prejudice; distrust of the new and revolutionary; rivalry, perhaps, and critical dismissal which, in the case of the great works, only time can reverse.

Sometimes there may be a personality trait that prevents an artist engaging with the public ... though heaven knows there are some authors today who withdraw completely into seclusion, finding fame a burden.

Which seems only to stimulate other people’s interest in them.

And of course there is the matter of luck. Historical luck. Artistic luck. Of finding the subject and the means of expressing it that captures the public imagination at precisely the time when people are most receptive to it. And there's no recipe for knowing what that is. If there were, we'd all be famous – and thus no one would be famous at all.

This is true, on the whole, for the Immortals in all the arts.

Van Gogh

Pre-eminent among the painters is the figure of Van Gogh, rejected and misunderstood, who sold but one picture in his lifetime. Today they sell for millions ... tens of millions should one come on the market.

And the power of Vincent’s art and luminosity of vision touches, in a wonderfully transformative way, almost everyone who has seen his works.


Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait


On a final bleak afternoon in London last November, I seized a spare hour to visit the National Gallery again to find the Wheatfield shimmering and dancing in the sun on the wall near the Sunflowers.

Schubert. Who I once read made less in his entire life as a musician and composer, than Paganini earned in one concert Schubert attended in Vienna.

Johann Sebastian – "Father" – Bach, who was certainly applauded in his career as a church organist at Leipzig. But not until 80 years after his death did people begin to recognise him as one of the greatest composers who has ever lived, thanks to his rediscovery by people like Mendelssohn among others.


And then there's poor Bizet. I started to write about him last time, before being detoured into a discussion about political metaphors. But I was reminded of him again this week when I heard somebody say on the radio that his Carmen is one of the most popular and widely performed operas in the repertoire.

Yet when he died in 1875, only a few months after its premiere in Paris, Bizet went to his grave believing that his opera was a failure. A flop.


Georges Bizet


Indeed, it was only after a revival performance given on the evening Bizet died, that the critics began to recognise Carmen as the masterpiece it is.

And it was a few years after that before the world was swept up by its intoxicating Spanish melodies and rhythms (in part based on folk songs, for he'd done his research, though he never visited Spain), vivid orchestration, and the passionate tragedy of the soldier, the gipsy girl and the toreador.

Even then it was not quite in the form that had been written by Bizet and his librettists, Ludovic Halévy (his nephew) and Henri Meilhac, from Prosper Mérimée's short story.

For it was originally staged at the Opéra Comique – as a "comic opera" with sections of spoken dialogue, not unlike Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas  on the other side of la Manche.

Turning "glacial"...

Not that there is very much "comic" about Carmen. One can well imagine a respectable bourgeois audience out for an amusing evening turning "glacial" at the first performance, when confronted with this tale of sex, possessive love and murder.

When the work was performed in Vienna later in 1875, the spoken dialogue was replaced with operatic recitatives, composed by Guiraud for the occasion (Bizet having already died).

It inevitably meant that a degree of subtlety and complexity was lost from the story; but it is as a full opera score that it's most frequently performed today, with the intensity and truthfulness of the music carrying us over the bumps to the heart of things, in what is a somewhat overwrought melodrama to modern taste ... as it does with most operas.

One wonders if Bizet would have minded too much about the editorial interference in his work. Probably not. His regret would be that he didn't live long enough to see his triumph. And to profit from it. Immortality can wait.


Picture credits:

Dr Johnson: by Sir Joshua Reynolds [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Franz Kafka, d. 1924:  by anonymous (the photographer never disclosed his identity); as much is indicated by omission of reference in 1958's Archiv Frans Wagenbach. [PD], via Wikimedia Commons

Vincent van Gogh Self-Portrait [PD], via Wikimedia Commons

Georges Bizet: by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin-Wilm. [PD], via Wikimedia Commons

Links to Carmen sites:



See also Wikipedia articles on Bizet and Carmen.